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Merriest Christmas Ever

Chapter One

 

 

Gracie Singleton Saylor brushed a wind-whipped strand of blonde hair from her eyes, pulled her red knit cloche over her ears, and rubbed her gloved palms together. The first day of December was nippy, and if the Indianapolis weatherman wasn’t mistaken, snow would soon fly. The house she’d purchased just two months ago was decorated from top to bottom, with candles in every window, mistletoe in the doorways, and a nativity scene in the parlor. Snow on the ground would add the final holiday touch to the outside of her “Victorian Christmas card.”

Standing back to admire the fragrant wreath she’d just hung on the front door, she smiled. Merriest Christmas, Gracie. The words were a self-promise, one she intended to keep.

All she needed now were two very tall trees, one for her stairway landing, and one for the parlor.

Ducking into the house, her house, Gracie studied the front room ceiling. Ten feet high if it was an inch and the landing could accommodate a tree just as big. Allowing for stands and stars for the tops, she jotted “buy two nine-footers” on her “to do” list, and picked up the keys to Old Blue, her aged, but beloved car.

 

* * *

 

Heber’s Gas Station and Christmas Tree Lot lay clear across town in the neighborhood where Gracie grew up. Will Heber needed the money the same as his father had, and she liked to help her own. Pop used to buy their tree at Heber’s on Christmas Eve, after the final price markdown. It was always a scraggly, Charlie Brown type tree, but after the Singleton sisters decorated it with homemade paper chains and added the star, they thought it was beautiful. That star was the loveliest thing their family owned.

Parking her ten-year-old Mustang next to a late model Jeep, Gracie longed to open its door and inhale its new car smell. She’d ridden in a new car once.

“Grace!” Will Heber rushed up to pump her hand. “We have a fine selection of trees this early in the year.”

After a moment of small talk, Will’s attention was drawn to a male customer with his back toward them. Gracie, following his gaze, was somewhat distracted herself. The man was tall, with dark hair, long legs, and lean thighs, and when he bent over to examine a tree’s lower branches, the jeans tightened enticingly over his backside. She excused herself quickly, and while Will went to help the man, moved down a row of trees that blocked him from view.

When she was younger, she’d been a fool for swarthy sex appeal and a winning smile. Now, she’d prefer an ambitious man, with clean-cut good looks, who was ambitious and dependable. If she was in the market for a relationship, which she wasn’t. She had a new business and home, and was starting life over in the town she’d left twelve years ago.

Lingering over an expensive white pine, Gracie inhaled its aroma and fingered its soft needles. She didn’t want to overspend, but Christmas was special. Maybe if she bought just one tree...no...the Larrabys had two when they owned the house that was hers now. And she loved traditions.

Moving to another section, she circled each tree, checking for bare spots and comparing her height of five and a half feet to theirs. She found one the right size with a lower price tag that would do for the stairway landing, but she really wanted that first white pine for her parlor. Returning to circle it again, she looked up into its graceful branches.

Smack. Her face hit cold leather, and her head cracked against a firm chin. She swayed from the impact. Strong hands steadied her, and she looked up into jade green eyes, and gasped. It couldn’t be... He raked his hand through his hair in a gesture she remembered well. “Merett.”

“Merett Bradmoore.” She had to say, taste, savor his name. His face was thinner, making the high planes of his cheekbones more prominent, but otherwise, he’d barely changed in fifteen years. His dark hair, parted on the side, still tumbled onto his forehead, begging to be pushed back.

He lowered thick lashes to narrow his gaze on her, and she blinked, hoping he approved of what he saw as much as she did.

“Gracie.”

He looked even more handsome than in high school, and a nervous laugh caught in her throat. “I can’t believe we ran into one another again.”

“Literally.” Merett’s voice was warm and husky, but his dimpled smile was slow in coming and didn’t quite reach his eyes. She’d loved the way his ready grin, bracketed by dimples, lighted his face. His eyes and voice had sparkled with fun and laughter. He’d changed.

“Daddy.” A little girl ran up to tuck her hand in his.

Merett was married, with a child. He was the catch of his class, super athlete, and topnotch at everything he tried. So, why was she surprised?

His daughter, stubbing the toe of her shoe in the dirt, studied Gracie with huge brown eyes. Her waist length hair was darker than Merett’s, almost black. Dressed in all pink with black patent Mary Janes, she was pretty, with long coltish legs. Her shoes didn’t look appropriate for the chilly day or task at hand.

Gesturing with her left hand clasped in his, Merett introduced them. “Kirsten, this is Gracie Singleton. Gracie, meet my seven-year-old daughter.”

“I’m almost eight.” The little girl looked at the white pine Gracie had been circling. “We’re going to buy this one. I hope you didn’t want it.”

Gracie swallowed her disappointment. Merett had, after all, been circling the same tree. “I was thinking about it, but I can find another.”

Kirsten politely thanked Gracie before scampering off to pet Will Heber’s old hunting dog.

Merett shook his head. “Kids.” His eyes went to her gloved left hand, which told him nothing, and she felt oddly pleased.

His comment could mean almost anything, and as he followed his daughter with his gaze, Gracie couldn’t decipher his expression. “Do you have any?”

She shook her head.

“Kirsten was testing you. She does that to people. I don’t know why, but she wants to see if she can get your goat. She often gets mine.”

“Faithie used to do that.” Gracie’s younger sister seemed to delight in seeing how far she could push her. “I think she wanted to make sure I’d love her, no matter what.”

“Kirsten should know.” Merett, watching his daughter crouch to examine the hound dog’s paw, frowned, and Gracie smiled ruefully. Faith hadn’t stopped testing her yet, but Merett didn’t need to hear that.

He turned his attention back to her. “Hope, Faith, and Grace. I was always surprised your name wasn’t Charity.”

Grace often thought it should have been. She felt as if she’d spent her life giving to others what little she had to give. Love, care, devotion, and much of it…for what? First, Faith went astray, then Sonny. Had she given too much? Too little? Both had balked at her care-taking, and then come back for more. Squaring her shoulders, she smiled. “How’s your family, Merett?”

“So-so.” He turned toward the tree she’d been considering; the one Kirsten decided she wanted. He examined it carefully, and the awkward silence grew.

“I can find another.” Gracie held out her hand. “It was nice to see you again.”

Merett’s grip was firm, and she wished their hands were bare so she could feel the warmth of his touch. He’d never felt that way about her, but there was that one time when he had kissed her. That kiss fed into her daydreams, but the next morning, he and Holly were together again.

He held onto Gracie’s hand a second too long, and her heart hammered with hope. He might not be married now. But he had a child, and kids took more out of you than a spouse did. She’d seen that with Mom.

“I didn’t know you were in Ferndale.” Merett folded his arms and looked down at her. A head taller and broad-shouldered, he’d always made her feel safe, somehow. “Are you living here?”

She nodded and wondered if he remembered the house where she’d lived before. “I came back two months ago and bought the old Larraby home.”

Merett half-closed his eyes as if he was trying to remember something. Which he probably was. Gracie, biting back a smile, spoke quickly. “Living there is a dream come true.”

“I’m happy for you.”

He used to look at her that way in high school, when they were working on the newspaper together, and she’d done something that pleased him. Gracie’s cheeks grew warm. Her heart beat faster.

“I couldn’t wait to shake the small-town dust from my feet, but I hated Chicago. Cold. Lonely.” She shivered, then squared her shoulders and smiled. “I made a mistake moving there, but now, I’m back with a new business and new life.”

She dropped her gaze to her watch. Enough said. Next, she’d be telling him about Sonny’s behavior and their subsequent divorce, rushing on to explain it was all for the best. Then she’d describe Special Effects in glowing terms, and knowing her tendency to confide too much, tell Merett her mortgage worries and what a chance she was taking.

“I lived in New York and liked city life, but Kirsten and I are staying with Dad for a while. Mama’s in a...a nursing home.”

“I’m so sorry.” Gracie laid her hand on his arm.

He laid his hand over hers and flashed his dimples. Gracie’s heart raced the way it used to. Once upon a time she dreamed of becoming Merett’s wife, but it was a foolish fantasy. His family was well-to-do, with a home on the gracious-living side of Ferndale. Hers lived in the outskirts, where houses were crammed in with factories, and people lived hand-to-mouth. Two different worlds that were too different.

“Daddy,” Kirsten called. “Come here. This dog has a thorn in its paw.”

“I’d better go.”

“Me too. With the holidays coming, there’s a lot to do.” The mere mention of the holiday made Gracie feel better. “I’ll bet Kirsten’s excited about Christmas.”

“Her and Dad.” Merett’s face folded into lines she’d never seen. His shoulders drooped.

But not you? He’d loved Christmas. Shivering, Gracie hugged her arms to her waist. Christmas had been different for both of them fifteen years ago.

Gracie was fourteen, Hope was twelve, and Faith, four. Pop was out of work and the Singletons were so hard up, they couldn’t afford even the spindliest tree on Heber’s lot. Despair lay over the family like dust so thick that Gracie could feel it in her throat. Mom hadn’t been well since Faith was born, so she was like Gracie’s own child, and the idea that the little girl would wake up to nothing, not even mittens or a cheap toy, was devastating. Then, on Christmas Eve, the doorbell rang, and there stood Merett Bradmoore. Dark hair falling over one eye, the handsome high school senior’s arms were loaded with presents. Behind him stood his parents with a fragrant pine and a turkey with all the trimmings. But it was Merett that Gracie saw. She’d worshipped him from afar, and now, like a fairy tale hero, he’d come to her rescue. Looking up into his deep green eyes, she fell in love that night.

Today, watching her holiday hero, face sad, remove the thorn from the dog’s paw, Gracie knew his kind heart was intact, and good things would happen for him again. Sometimes they took a while, but if you hung onto your hope, they always did. Merett’s Christmas Eve visit had taught her that, and his precious gift of optimism had stood her in good stead.

Now, it looked as if Gracie needed to return it to him.

 

* * *

 

Merett was paying Will when he saw Gracie drive off in a Mustang with a tree lashed to the top. “This tree you got is a beaut. Probably the nicest on the lot,” Will said.

Gracie had thought so, too. Merett had seen the disappointment in her eyes when Kirsten laid claim to it. Will, following his gaze, nodded to a large tagged pine. “Gracie bought that tree, too. She’s coming back for it. Imagine. A Singleton with two trees. Does my heart good.”

Merett’s, too. He remembered the house where she had lived fifteen years ago.

“You go right by her place, don’t you?” Will asked, with a tip of his head. “I could load her tree with yours, and save her a trip. If you were of a mind to.”

It would be a neighborly thing to do, by local standards. In this small Indiana town where Merett had grown up, people were friendly. Everyone knew everyone and their business, and that’s why he’d lain low since returning from New York. He didn’t like running into people he knew and of all people to meet today...Gracie Singleton.

With that wild mass of lemony curls hanging halfway to her waist, she looked like the innocent girl he knew in high school. Back then, when she looked up at him with lavender-blue eyes, her gaze as velvety as pansies, he’d longed to tangle his fingers in her thick golden curls and draw her close. His fingers perspired inside his gloves, and he rubbed them together. Nothing had changed, and yet, nothing was the same.

 

* * *

 

The sound of the Jeep’s engine springing to life reassured Merett, just as it always did. Its purchase, and subletting his apartment, were the only major decisions he’d made in more than a year. He’d become a procrastinator and indecision was a trait he couldn’t stand, particularly in himself.

He turned on the heater and picked up one of Kirsten’s pink mittens off the floor. Will had seven kids, and was just twenty-nine, Gracie’s age. Merett couldn’t imagine coping with seven kids, day out and day in, at any age. One was challenge enough. His daughter was on her knees on the front seat, window rolled down, one hand out. “I think I feel snow.”

Merett dangled the mitten he’d found in front of Kirsten’s face. “If you’d put your mittens on, you wouldn’t feel snow. Please close the window, sit down, and fasten your seat belt.”

“See,” she declared triumphantly as a fat snowflake splatted against the car window. “I told you.” She was such a know-it-all sometimes. She poked him in the arm. “Why are we taking that lady’s tree? Why didn’t she take it herself?”

“She bought two, and only one would fit on her car.”

“Does she have two houses?”

“I don’t think so.”

“She might. She might have a real house and a playhouse.” The surmising went on, with Kirsten coming up with a dozen ridiculous reasons why Gracie would buy two trees.

Merett stopped saying “mm-hm” after a while and wondered again if Gracie had a husband. When he had asked Will, he’d looked at her check, and said it was signed Gracie Singleton Saylor, and that was all he knew. If she wasn’t married now, she had been. Saylor sounded vaguely familiar. “No!” Merett smacked his gloved palm against the wheel. “No.”

“Why are you saying no?” Kirsten demanded. “Gracie might have bought that tree for someone who’s poor, like I said. Grampa told me you and he and Gramma used to take trees and gifts to people at Christmas. And turkeys, too.”

Merett turned onto Maple Street. Gracie’s home was a stately Victorian, slightly in need of paint, but attractive. The blue Mustang sat out front, her tree still in place.

“Then you were talking to yourself. Old people do that, sometimes, Grampa said.”

Merett parked the car and looked at Kirsten. She was a handful.

“Can I get out?” she asked. Without waiting for an answer, she was out and gone, running up Gracie’s front walk.

Merett walked slowly toward the door, where a breeze tinkled silver bells and fluttered the red bow of a wreath. Tiny white twinkle lights outlined the porch with a blue star in the middle. The window candles weren’t lit, but when dusk fell, Gracie’s house would look beautiful.

A snowflake landed on his nose, and he looked up, hoping they wouldn’t get much. Snow paralyzed burgs like Ferndale.

Merett reached the porch and looked around for Kirsten. “Here I am,” she called from the end of the porch where she sat in a swing littered with dry leaves.

Merett rang the bell. Seconds passed. His heart hammered. Why had he been so stupid? Gracie had a crush on him in high school, but it wasn’t his masculine appeal that had gotten to her. His family’s Christmas visit to her house convinced her he was some kind of hero. He jabbed the bell again, hoping Sonny wouldn’t answer. It wasn’t hard to imagine him as the type to sit home while his wife toted a couple of big trees around.

The door flew open. “Sorry I took so long, but—Merett?”

“Gracie?” He couldn’t help grinning. “I believe we played this scene earlier.”

She laughed, a thick golden honey sound, and the last remnant of his self-anger dissipated. “I delivered your other tree.”

She looked beyond him to the Jeep, and clapped her hands like a little girl: a beautiful girl with flushed cheeks and a radiant smile. As slender as she’d been in high school, she still had those lush breasts, as well. His mouth suddenly dry, he licked his lips.

“Thank you.” Her eyes on his tongue, she blinked rapidly.

“I’ll bring it in,” he said, turning on his heel. The way she looked at him made nearly-forgotten parts of his body spring to life. He hadn’t reacted to any woman in that way in a long time, and a pang of guilt added to his discomfort.

“I’ll help you, Daddy.” Kirsten jumped out of the swing.

“Gracie, you should take that swing inside.” he said, turning back to her. “The weather will ruin the varnish.”

She played with the hem of her soft, clinging blue sweater. Lighter than her eyes, it intensified their outstanding violet-blue color. Liz Taylor eyes, he’d once told her. “I’ve been so busy getting settled, I hadn’t thought of it. It...it...came with the house.”

He strode down the walk to unleash the tree. What made him admonish Gracie about the swing? It was none of his business how she took care of things. Swinging the tree to the ground, he nearly hit Kirsten, who was hopping around underfoot. Giving her a warning look, he carried the pine to the house. If Sonny was around, he wasn’t showing his face until it was inside.

Gracie motioned him inside. “Put it in the parlor, please.”

Skipping ahead, Kirsten stared up the steep oak stairway, then peeked into the first room left of the hall. “This must be the parlor, and I’ll bet the tree goes there!” She pointed to the corner between the triple front window and a side window.

“Exactly right,” Gracie said, hugging Kirsten to her side.

Merett smiled as Gracie pulled a tree stand from the opposite corner into Kirsten’s chosen place. The room was large but sparsely furnished. A gate-leg table bearing a manger scene stood against the wall to the left of the door. A brocade armchair and a pie crust table with a Tiffany lamp stood on the right. In the middle of the back wall, opposite the triple window, loomed an upright piano. Highly polished, it shone in the sun streaming through the lace curtains. “That piano’s beautiful.”

Gracie’s eyes sparkled. “It’s my prized possession, and I found it in the attic. At first, I couldn’t believe anyone would leave a piano behind. Then I discovered the player doesn’t work.” She ran her fingers over the keys. “I like it, anyway.”

As Merett fitted the tree into the holder and tightened the screws that held the trunk in place, Gracie stood with her arm draped loosely around Kirsten’s shoulders. She’d had plenty of experience with kids, mothering Faith who was much younger. And Hope, although she was close to Gracie’s age, looked up to her, too. She’d been a real mother hen, as he remembered. He stood and checked out his work. “There’s just room enough for a star.”

“When I was a child, we had a ceramic star with an angel painted on it. I’ve always wanted to find another like it, but grandma bought it at a church bazaar, so I probably never will.”

Kirsten tapped her on the arm. “What kind of star do you want for your other tree? And why do you have two trees? Do they both go here? I don’t mean in this room, because that would be dumb. I mean, in this house, or do you have another house?”

“Whoa.” Merett gave her a stern look. She was talking a mile a minute, as usual. “A person can’t answer a dozen questions at the same time.”

She dropped her head, and studied her Mary Janes. “Sorry.”

Gracie raised Kirsten’s chin with her fingertip, and smiled. “It’s okay. The other tree goes on the landing near the top of the stairway. I’ll use an ordinary star on that tree.”

“You’re lucky having two trees.”

“Very lucky,” she agreed, her blue eyes meeting Merett’s over his daughter’s head.

“I’ll bring your other one in now.”

“And I’ll make cocoa to warm you and Kirsten. Just set it on the porch, and I’ll have Hope’s husband carry it up as soon as they visit. Frank’s an attorney, and they’re busy a lot. They haven’t even seen my house yet.”

Merett longed to rub away the tiny crease that formed between Gracie’s brows.

“Should I call you Mrs. Singleton?” Kirsten asked.

“Actually, my name’s Ms. Saylor, but please call me Gracie. Ms. Saylor sounds so old.” Gracie grinned and turned up her nose.

“And it sounds like the name of someone in an Old Maid deck. You know, Mr. Soldier, Ms. Sailor, Miss Marine.”

“Kirsten!” Merett scolded. Gracie broke up, and fighting to conceal his amusement, he motioned to his daughter. “Come on, squirt. You can help bring in the other tree.”

“Thanks, but I’d rather help Gracie fix the cocoa instead.”

As his daughter tucked her hand into Gracie’s, a sense of foreboding settled over Merett. Kirsten bonded with anyone who paid her attention, and when he took her back to New York to live, he didn’t want to add Gracie to the casualty list.

 

* * *

 

Gracie watched Merett study his daughter, uncertainty playing over his handsome features like shadows on a sunlit pond. Was he afraid Kirsten would be a nuisance while he was gone? “I don’t mind, if you don’t.”

“See, Daddy? It’s okay.” Kirsten smoothed her pink corduroy jumpsuit and gave him a happy wave. “Want me to see if I can find the kitchen, Gracie?” Without waiting for an answer, she skipped off down the hallway, Mary Janes clicking on the hardwood floors.

“Walk,” Merett called after her.

Kirsten turned and gave him a level look. “My mother let me skip in the house.”

“No. She didn’t.” The look that came over Merett’s face chilled Gracie. Pain, anger, devastation; one gave way to the other.

“Well, you used to, but you never let me do anything since—”

“You’re in someone else’s house now. You might break something.”

Kirsten opened her mouth to retort, but he shook his head, and she clamped her lips shut. Turning her back on him, she walked down the hall.

Merett slammed out of the house. Kirsten walked demurely to the kitchen and sat down at the big oak table by the window. Bewildered, Gracie followed.

Neither of them spoke as she poured milk into stoneware mugs and set them in the microwave. A box of assorted Christmas cards lay on the table, and Kirsten opened them. Beside them lay Gracie’s address book. “When I lived in New York,” Kirsten said, patting it, “we never sent cards, but Grampa sends them.”

“My parents never sent cards, either. But I think it’s a nice tradition.” Gracie had been busy addressing the flyers for Special Effects she’d mailed yesterday, and planned to send a few cards when she had time.

The front screen banged again, and Merett pounded up the steps. Gracie took the mugs out, and stirred sweet-smelling cocoa powder into the steaming milk.

“I leaned your tree in the corner by the bay window,” Merett said, as he entered the kitchen. His eyes on Kirsten, he furrowed his brow.

“Thanks.” Gracie turned to smile at him. “I have to buy another stand, unless I find one in the attic. You wouldn’t believe how many interesting things are stored there.”

“I’d like to see,” Kirsten said. “I’ve never been in an attic before.”

Merett gave her a dark look, and Gracie, sensing he was still upset with his daughter, turned away. While a whispered lecture took place, she arranged cookies she’d baked on one of her blue stoneware plates. Stalling for time, she folded napkins, set out spoons, and nothing left to do, plopped three marshmallows into a steaming mug, and walked across the kitchen to set it in front of Kirsten. “Blow first, so you don’t burn your mouth.”

Merett sauntered over to the counter to get his cup, and Gracie followed. Who would have ever thought Merett Bradmoore would be standing in her kitchen this Sunday afternoon? She was so aware of his presence that her hands shook. To steady them, she stirred the cocoa, and watched wisps of steam float away. He slipped two marshmallows in each of their cups, and shrugged. “I’m surprised you wanted to come back to Ferndale.”

“Even though Pop never made a decent living here, people were always kind to us, and I like knowing my neighbors and the people I do business with.” She smiled up at Merett. “The only people I knew in Chicago were the people at work, one woman in our apartment building, and...” Gracie grimaced. “Sonny.”

“You married the guy who lived over Pawley’s Pool Hall?”

“That’s right. Pool hustler, cool dude, drove a black pickup, and wore a leather jacket to match. Smoothest line in town, and I fell for it.”

Merett leaned against the counter and studied her, his gaze so probing that her pulse pounded in her ears.

“You were so quiet and smart. Sonny was...”

Gracie shrugged. “We stayed together ten years.”

“And then?”

“Sonny lost his tenth job. Wrecked his fourth pickup. And his leather jacket wore out.” She spooned a half-melted marshmallow into her mouth. No sense in telling him the whole truth. The wound was still too raw. “Our divorce was final six months ago, and shortly after that, I came back to town for Aunt Grace’s funeral. This house was for sale, and I fell in love with it.”

Looking across the room at Kirsten, Merett gestured. “Okay for her to do that?” She was sorting through the Christmas cards, looking at the pictures and reading the verses aloud to herself.

Nodding, Gracie studied his troubled face.

“I liked New York and my work there, but Dad was alone and wanted me here. I felt like I didn’t have a choice.” Merett stalked over to the table where Kirsten had stopped reading to watch fat snowflakes flutter past the window. Sitting down, he drummed his fingers on the table.

Gracie was determined to find a subject that would make him feel better, and he had said he liked New York and his job. “What did you do in New York?”

“He worked for a newspaper,” Kirsten piped up, “and I took dance lessons and voice lessons, and hated them both.”

“I always wanted to take dance lessons,” Gracie said, sitting down at the table. At least, his daughter was conversational. “I wanted to wear a pink tutu and silver toe shoes, and dance ‘Swan Lake.’“

Kirsten leaned forward and spoke confidentially. “You wouldn’t have liked it. Those tutu things scratch, and toe shoes are sure to pinch, and it’s all very boring.”

“What would you rather have been doing?” Gracie asked, chuckling. Merett was staring out the kitchen window, and she wondered where his thoughts were.

“I’m pretty good at art. I was going to take painting lessons if we’d stayed in New York, and I might have liked those.” Gracie nodded; she’d been good at art, too, and longed for lessons. “I’d really, really have liked horseback riding lessons,” Kirsten went on, “but my mommy didn’t like the way horses smell. I also wanted to play basketball, but I wasn’t old enough for the team. You have to be in fourth grade. I was in first when we moved here. I’m in second now. I might not have been able to play basketball, anyway. It makes you smell, too.” Kirsten held her nose.

“Honestly, squirt.” Merett sighed.

“I like it better when he calls me Princess,” she told Gracie, as if her father weren’t there.

As Kirsten turned back to the Christmas cards, Merett sat, shoulders slumped, watching her. To fill the silence, Gracie turned on the radio that she kept tuned to an Indianapolis station with a DJ who shared her love for Christmas songs. I’ll Be Home For Christmas flooded the room. Smiling, she folded her arms and leaned against the end of the counter. “I’ll bet your dad’s glad to have you and Kirsten home for the holidays, Merett.”

His stormy expression deepened.

“Grampa is glad, and I am, too,” Kirsten said. “It’s better here than in New York. Anyway, our ‘partment felt weird without Mommy.”

“How many times do I have to tell you it’s a-partment?” Merett snapped. “Put those cards in the box. It’s time to go.”

Gracie heard the break in his voice, and knew he was hurting. Had Kirsten’s mother deserted them?

“Do we have to leave?” Kirsten lifted her dark eyes to his. “Can’t we stay and help Gracie decorate her tree? Puh-lease.”

Merett rose and pulled out Kirsten’s chair. “Gracie can get along fine without us.”

And we can do without her. Gracie could almost hear his unspoken words. He wore a signet ring, not a wedding band, on his left hand. But he clearly didn’t want any involvement. Not with her, at least.

He was hell-bent for the front door when Gracie’s black kitten yowled and dived under the hall table. “Dad-dy! You stepped on the cat. Here, kitty, kitty.” Kirsten got down on her knees and tried to coax it out. “I didn’t know you had a kitten, Gracie. What’s its name?”

“Spook. He’s always hiding and jumping out when you least expect him.” Gracie kneeled to scoop him out. “I wondered where you were, you naughty kitten.”

“May I hold him?” Kirsten asked, arms outstretched, and he settled into her arms with a forgiving purr. “I wish I could have a cat.” She looked accusingly at Merett, who stood, arms folded, by the front door.

“You’re always wishing. Last week, it was a dog.” He took her pink jacket off the hall tree and held it out to her.

“You wouldn’t let me have that, either. You won’t let me have a pet of any kind. Except something boring like a fish.”

“We’ve had this discussion before, Kirsten. Put this coat on.”

She slowly handed the kitten to Gracie, slowly put on her jacket and one mitten, then stopped to pet Spook again.

“March!” Merett barked, and Kirsten stalked out the front door, her dad dogging her heels, but not before Gracie saw the tears that filled her big brown eyes.

Watching from the parlor window as they drove away, Gracie felt a deep sense of loss. Fifteen years ago, Merett Bradmoore had given her — a nobody freshman wearing thrift shop clothes — the gift of hope, but somewhere along the way, he’d lost his own.

Chapter Two

 

 

Kirsten didn’t speak to Merett all the way home. Damn, she was stubborn. A pet was a big responsibility for a seven-year-old, and he didn’t feel like taking care of one for her. Besides they had Tippy, Mama’s dog. How she’d loved that yapping ball of fur! When Merett was younger, he’d complain about Tippy, asking when they were going to get a real dog and she’d laugh. “This house isn’t big enough for two dogs. Besides, big doesn’t mean real.”

Mama was full of wisdom. “Pretty is beautiful, simply put,” she’d told him, when he had said that Gracie Singleton was pretty, but Holly was beautiful. “Simply put” described Gracie perfectly. Warm, pretty, happy. If he hadn’t already been seeing Holly...

Merett scrubbed a gloved palm over his eyes. His mother had always understood him, while his father seldom did. When he wanted to quit band in high school, Dad was irate. “Life offers many choices, and we can’t do everything. Merett would rather play sports than a trumpet,” Mama explained. Dad furiously asked why he couldn’t do both. “He can’t do justice to everything, and Merett always wants to do his best.”

How true, and how short he’d fallen. And Mama with all that wisdom wiped out, so that some days, she didn’t know her own name. Dad said she recognized him; he could tell by the light in her blue eyes. Merett, sure the light was the vacancy behind them, hadn’t visited his mother since she’d gone to live at Sunny Haven.

“Daddy, you just drove by Grampa’s house.” Kirsten tapped him on the elbow with a mittened hand, and pointed with the other, which was bare.

Grandpa’s house, not our house. He wasn’t even giving his child a home of her own. He should do something about it, but that was the purpose of Harry Bradmoore buying his only son the Daily Reporter — to bring him home, so they could live together. Further evidence his dad didn’t understand him. He never wanted to publish a newspaper. He was a reporter.

Swerving into the neighbor’s driveway, Merett turned the Jeep around. It was a good thing his daughter was with him, or he would have wound up in Daleville. An awful thought hit him. What if he ended up like his mother? What if he forgot what he was doing, and where he was going, and who he was? Fright made his voice gruff. “Where’s your other mitten, Kirsten?”

She held up her bare hand to stare at it. “I must have left it at Gracie’s.”

Merett sighed, and then realized he’d been doing that a lot lately. Odd that Gracie Singleton, who’d probably never been to the ballet, dreamed of taking lessons. What else had she wanted to do that she couldn’t? “You should be more careful,” he scolded, taking hold of Kirsten’s bare hand. “It’s cold outside. Look how red your fingers are.”

“Losing something is an accident.”

She had one big new tooth on the top front, and the baby one next to it was loose. She was cute, even if she was impossible. “Your loose tooth wiggles when you talk.”

“I didn’t lose the mitten on purpose.” She was impossible to distract when she was set on a subject. “We should go back to Gracie’s, and get it.”

“And pet her kitten so you could long for one, and pester me some more?” he teased, poking a finger in Kirsten’s ribs. “We’ll get you some new mittens.”

Parking the Jeep in the circular driveway close to the house, Merett leaned across to open her door. She was a wise little imp, part old lady, part innocent child. Maybe that’s why it was so hard for him to deal with her. “Go ahead, hop out.”

She put her hand on his arm. “I like those mittens, and it’s snowing. I need to go back to Gracie’s. Now.”

Merett pictured Gracie opening her door. Widening her eyes. Licking her lips. Her sweet scent enveloping him. Scrambling out of the Jeep, he slammed the door. Kirsten could pout all she wanted. Gracie made him feel the way he did when he had had chicken pox and couldn’t scratch, and he couldn’t — wouldn’t — go back again.

 

* * *

 

Making soft clucking noises, Gracie washed the cups and cookie plate. Poor Kirsten. Gracie had only seen Merett angry once before. In high school, soon after he started dating Holly Lagere.

Holly, with her long ebony hair and designer fashions, was always laughing, joking, and hanging out with the most popular kids, and dating the coolest guys. One night, when she was out with his best friend Pete Hancock, Gracie saw Merett at the public library, alone, and forgot all about doing her homework. Book open, he beat a rapid tattoo on the table with his pencil. The clock chimed nine, closing time, and he broke his pencil sharply in two. He headed for the double doors, and Gracie, moving swiftly, got there at the same time. Crashing into him, she reeled, and just as she hoped, he caught her. Wondering how she’d had the courage to work such a ploy, she looked up and nearly drowned in his ocean-green eyes.

“Sorry,” he murmured. “I should watch where I’m going.”

Gracie longed to lean against his hard chest and play the scene out as she planned, but she couldn’t. It wasn’t honest. Breaking free, she bolted down the steps, but Merett caught up with her. It was dark, and she couldn’t see his face, but his voice was warm and husky.

“You shouldn’t walk home alone at night. Let me take you,” he said, motioning toward his Camaro glistening under a street light.

Climbing into the black car, she inhaled deeply, taking in the new leather smell. He smiled, she ducked her head, and he tilted her chin with his finger. “It’s okay.”

She tried to lower her chin, but he kept his finger firm. “Hey,” he said softly. “There’s no reason to be embarrassed or afraid. Keep your chin high, and look the world in the eye. You’re pretty and smart, and don’t need to worry what anyone else thinks.”

Slowly, he moved his face toward hers, and her heart almost stopped. Their breath mingled, and time stood still as his lips met hers in a gentle kiss with the sweet taste of heaven.

To this day, she’d never forgotten his advice, nor his kiss.

Gracie swabbed the kitchen table with her dishcloth. Merett never kissed her again or mentioned that night. But, when they worked close together on the Clarion, the school newspaper, she’d feel the electricity between them. “M. B. wants to kiss me again,” she’d written in her diary, “but he won’t because of H.L.”

Gracie hung up her cloth and dried her hands. She’d spun beautiful daydreams back then. Merett asking her to his senior prom. Calling her nightly from college. Giving her his fraternity pin. Giving her an engagement ring. Walking down the aisle. Having a baby boy with dimples and dark hair. But none of her dreams came to pass.

“I’m dreaming of a white Christmas,” Bing Crosby’s voice crooned, and Gracie looked out the window at her lawn, pristine under a blanket of fresh snow. Across the yards, in the kitchen next door, Margaret and Homer Riggs smiled at one another over the dinner table. A chill swept over Gracie, and she hugged her arms to her waist as she turned away. The only thing missing from her life was someone to share it with.

Dusk came early in December, and as she walked up the dim hall from the kitchen to the front of the house, candlelight from darkened rooms lit her way. A street lamp shone through a stained glass window in her front door, casting a pattern of rays on the foyer floor. Today was Sunday, but the stores would be open until seven, and she needed to shop for lights and ornaments. An old-fashioned hall tree stood in the shadowy corner by the front door, and Gracie, groping for her coat, was startled by luminous green eyes staring up at her. Spook bared his tiny white teeth, and loneliness and fear disappearing into the night, Gracie laughed aloud.

 

* * *

 

Gracie made a quick stop at Dollar Variety to buy tree ornaments and lights, then drove to Cherry Park Plaza. A sign at the entrance of the strip mall, known for its specialty shops, alternately flashed date, time, and temperature. December 1. 5:55 P.M. 32 degrees. Happy Holidays. If she hurried, she might be able to replace Kirsten’s mittens before Merett learned she’d lost one.

At Kids Galore, a warm blast of air and the jolly refrain of “Frosty the Snowman” greeted Gracie as she pushed through double doors. Tree lights twinkled. A mechanical Santa beat a drum. A child sat in one aisle, trying out a robot and laughing. Christmas was the best time of year, and kids were what it was all about.

Pawing through the mittens, she remembered a year when Faith longed for a Cabbage Patch Doll, and got Cabbage Patch mittens instead. Kirsten, like her father, would never have to worry about such disappointments.

The pink mittens looked babyish, and Gracie was about to leave when she spotted a pair of rose suede gloves that were velvety soft.

“Your daughter will love these.” The checkout woman added a candy cane to the brightly striped bag.

Her daughter. Soon to be thirty, there would be no little girl for Gracie. No son. She’d vowed long ago never to be an older parent, and her chances to be a young one had just about run out.

Smiling ruefully, she exited into a blowing snow. Powder-fine now, it would take a while to mount up, even with the inch or so they’d acquired earlier. She used to love playing in snow. Making angels. Sliding down a hill on a flattened cardboard box. Kirsten was probably dusting off her sled.

The Bradford house stood at the edge of town amidst pine trees that covered several acres of ground. A wrought iron fence surrounded the property, but wide double gates stood open, and Gracie parked behind Merett’s Jeep in the circular driveway. Looking up at the impressive two-story colonial, her nerve almost failed her, until she whispered the words Merett had taught her. Look the world in the eye.

 

* * *

 

Merett sat staring at The New York Times, wishing he were back East, eating salami on rye from Nickerson’s Deli instead of waiting for Mrs. Jarvis to finish dinner. The housekeeper, who had been with his family since he was a child, was an excellent cook, but grew slower each year. The aroma of beef roasting in rich brown gravy had been tantalizing him for what seemed like hours. And now, someone was at the door. Tippy was yapping her silly little head off.

“Gracie!” Kirsten cried. “Come in. Daddy’s in the library.”

You wouldn’t know by his daughter’s voice that she hadn’t spoken to him since he carried her in the house and sent her to her room for an hour. A blast of cold air rushed around the corner to where he sat. Tail between his legs, the old Pekinese, who had never liked anyone but Mama, scooted through the library door to hide behind his chair. Kirsten followed, smile radiant, dragging Gracie along.

Gracie, blonde hair streaming from beneath a red knit hat damp with glittering snowflakes, stood feet apart, hands behind her back. “Kirsten lost a mitten at my house.”

My house. She said it so proudly. It was his family’s tradition to help a family in need each Christmas, and when she had opened the door that Christmas, he’d seen hers was desperately poor. After school resumed, and he realized where he’d seen Gracie before — in his journalism class — he worried that she might feel embarrassed. Instead, she joined the Clarion staff where he was editor. Holly teased him about a freshman having a crush, but he never told her why Gracie looked at him with stars in her eyes.

Kirsten dangled a mitten in front of his face, and a loose pink yarn tickled his nose. “Did you hear, Daddy? Spook tried to eat my mitten, so Gracie brought me new ones.”

“Actually, I bought gloves. The pink mittens at Kids Galore were all so juvenile.”

“That means kiddish, doesn’t it?” Without waiting for an answer, Kirsten stuck her hand in the sack Gracie proffered, and drew out rose-colored suede gloves. “Oh, look, Daddy. Aren’t they bee-yoo-ti-ful?”

Beautiful but not practical. He could just see them after she threw a snowball or ate a chocolate ice cream cone. His disapproval must have shown in his eyes, because Gracie lifted her chin, bringing back the memory of the first time he’d really noticed her. He had been leaving the library when he’d crashed into her, and she had looked up, taking his breath away. Her eyes were the most incredible color, and with that mass of golden curls, she had looked too vulnerable to be out alone. So he’d offered her a ride home. Then he’d been the one to take advantage, by kissing her. What possessed him to do it, he didn’t know, but as enthralled by her sweet lips as by her silky gaze, his youthful body responded instantly to the feel of her. He had had a hard time falling asleep that night, and the sweet scent she wore lingered as he slept. He hated to shower next morning, but didn’t want Holly to find out, even though she’d been out with his best friend.

His father’s voice brought him back to the present. “Those gloves are beautiful. Just like you, young lady.”

Kirsten beamed up at him as he hugged her to his side. “Do you know Gracie, Grampa?”

Dad held out his hand to their guest. “We met many years ago.”

Kirsten crawled up on Merett’s lap, and laid her head back against his chest. Difficult as she could be, she was everything to him. He brushed his lips across her hair. She was probably tired.

“You’re as lovely as ever, Miss Singleton,” his father was saying.

“Her name is Ms. Saylor,” Kirsten interjected, “but you can call her Gracie.”

Merett’s father looked amused. “So you married Sonny, did you?”

Nodding, she turned up her nose prettily. “It’s such an appropriate name; I wonder if his mother had a premonition he’d remain infantile.”

“What’s infantile?” Kirsten asked.

Merett silenced her with ...

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